So here’s what we got:

Fruits Basket
Premise: Family of cursed shapeshifters adopts good-hearted orphan girl.

Notes: I didn’t know this was one of the most famous and popular of manga in the U.S., but I can see why. K and are totally hooked and can’t get enough. There’s this extended family of people (the Sohma family), most of them teens and young adults, and each is possessed by a vengeful spirit of the Chinese zodiac (there are twelve of them, one for each animal). When hugged by a member of the opposite sex, they change temporarily into a cute version of the animal they are possessed by. The head of the family is a malicious person who stands in as the ruler of the zodiac.

The main character, Tohru Honda, tries to manage her day-to-day school and work activities while handling the intrigues of the Sohma family. She also has two friends in school who watch over her since her parents died. Tohru’s only superpower is her relentless optimism and good will, matched against the dark secrets of self-loathing and abuse within the Sohma family. A lot of the book is conflict and self-discovery. Each character struggles to become a better person and face their past.

On the surface, the characters do a lot of ordinary daily life stuff. They have to get good grades, make work deadlines, or cook a dinner on short notice. There are factions within the Sohma family that shift and change depending on who is present and what dark secret is rearing it’s ugly head. The main character Tohru has to endure stressful challenges and handle adult responsibilities when she hasn’t even graduated high school yet! But the core of self-discovery never lets up, and never disappoints. Characters who come off as maladjusted jerks suddenly become sympathetic as you see their side of the story and they strive to get better.

Tohru’s own journey takes a long time, and she can be pretty annoying and simple-minded at times, yet there’s more to her than she knows and her character holds up despite the strain.

Verdict: I don’t want it to end.

Hot Gimmick
Premise: Girl living in a company apartment complex gets mixed up in a revenge plot between her childhood tormentor and a childhood friend.

Notes: Reading this, I’m reminded how vicious kids can be regardless of economic circumstances. This is a disturbing tale of a parental community struggling against itself over class lines, with the teenagers picking up the pieces and not always behaving decently.

What do you do when you’re in a family with damaged interpersonal dynamics and a shameful past? How do you cope when ulterior motives and a lack of parental guidance taint people your own age?

I found a lot of the subject matter in this book disturbing. I almost turned away, but then I saw how necessary and real it was. A teen reading this might find comfort and strength in seeing how a crummy neighborhood is just some people’s lot. You aren’t crazy, it’s the environment you’re growing up in.

But even in a neighborhood of dysfunction, you’re involved in a changing tale of growing up. There’s no doubt that Hatsumi, the main character, is involved in life. It’s refreshing to see a female character going through such turmoil and having a meaningful adventure.

Verdict: I’m involved now, and I’m with Hatsumi all the way.

Love Hina
Premise: Failed college applicant loser becomes owner of an all-girl’s dormitory.

Notes: I’ve heard it said that comedy is a man in trouble, and this manga fits the bill. You have Keitaro, the stereotypical loser (unattractive, bad at sports, not too bright, no special talent), trying desperately to get into the best college in the nation and failing. He refuses to try for a lesser college that might accept him. As a result his life is passing him by and his future is looking bleak. Of course, it follows that no sensible woman will have anything to do with him.

His family can’t stand the shame, so they kick him out and he goes to stay with his grandma. She owns a hot springs house converted into a small girl’s dorm. Keitaro’s aunt helps to run the place. There are five teenage girls of various ages, representing common archetypes (the brain, the martial artist, the crazy foreigner, the artist, and the shy innocent) also staying there. Grandma goes on a trip and leaves the house in Keitaro’s hands. He accepts the job so he’ll have a place to study. His next chance to enter his dream university is coming up.

Unfortunately, being a landlord means new responsibilities, and the five girls do everything in their power to get him to give up and leave (they see him as pervert and want grandma back). How will Keitaro cope with all these shenanigans and find time to study for another test he will likely fail like the two previous years?

At first, I dismissed this as just veiled voyeurism with a funny guy cover. But now I’m starting to root for the guy as he finds his way into a mature way of thinking. He refuses to give up his dream, and he isn’t afraid to ask for help. The interpersonal relationships are growing on me. You start to see how everyone needs each other, and how it’s okay to be yourself. Being a loser isn’t the end of the world. Life goes on.

Verdict: I’m hearing the Rocky music here.

Because I’m the Goddess
Premise: Misfit guy becomes sidekick of Goddess on a mission.

Notes: Reading this, I thought the setup was one mighty dumb idea. The revealing outfits of the Goddess Pandora looked like un-necessary cheesecake to me. I mean, you’ve got a wisecracking pet cat breaking the fourth wall. However, again I see there’s more to it than this.

Pandora has been sent to earth, accompanied by the talking cat, to retrieve several “gifts”. These “gifts” are negative qualities that have possessed women on earth and given them evil powers. They become giftmasters and enslave someone to do their bidding and cause trouble. Their slaves can turn into magic weapons capable of killing Pandora. She locates the “gifts” by identifying the slaves – they have a psychic collar and chain that leads back to the giftmaster.

Pandora runs into Aoi, a sourpuss guy, and discovers he is her sidekick. Pandora, being a Goddess, has magic powers. But when she uses her powers she turns into a normal girl. She can only regain her Goddess self by kissing Aoi. When in the presence of a giftmaster, she can kiss Aoi and turn him into a magical weapon. She can then break the chain between giftmaster and slave, and retireve the gift.

The complication is that Aoi doesn’t want to have anything to do with Pandora, but he’s stuck with her until she completes her mission.

This manga’s got a wacky side. The cat is the best part, with his funny one-liners and stoic attitude. Aoi is actually a decent person, but he clearly needs to work out some issues with people, something Pandora forces him to do by her mere presence. Aoi’s troubles as her sidekick make him more interesting, but I like that. It’s refreshing to see a sidekick be the focus of the struggle. You have the conflict between divine and mortal embodied in a super-powered relationship.

It’s hard to emphasize with Pandora, as she’s a force of nature and used to being venerated. Her own quest is harder to follow because the writer is holding back her big secret until the end. The manga only lasts three volumes before it concludes, which cuts back on her development. Just when Pandora starts to acquire a cast of characters besides Aoi and the cat, and seems to be relating more, the climax of the story comes.

But I like her quest. The idea that she is removing “negative qualities” from women on earth is cool. It’s only after she starts to see Aoi as a person who can get hurt, and relies on her friends, that she is able to push her quest to its conclusion.

Verdict: Needed to be longer. It’s hard to execute a complex, long-term “Goddess seeks human quality/Loner discovers his heart” story in so short a time.

Premise: Demons roam the earth and only the claymores can defeat them.

Notes: It’s a medieval world. Shapeshifting demons, called Yoma, are infiltrating and attacking the settlements of humanity. No human can detect or stand up to them. Claymores, women who have become half-demon and half-human hybrids, are the only hope. They have superhuman fighting abilities and demon-locating senses. All of them use huge two-handed swords called claymores, thus their nickname. They travel from place to place, locating and killing Yoma for a fee.

I decided to take a chance on an action-based manga here. I find that I go through such manga faster, as a lot of panels are filled with fighting maneuvers without dialogue. For me, that means the story has to be good enough to make the fight scenes worth examining. The tale of the hard line fighter with the humanizing sidekick is not a new one, but I found myself drawn in and liking what I saw.

The sidekick is a boy named Raki. The first story concerns the Yoma that infiltrates and murders his family, then begins attacking the village. A claymore named Clare is called in and she dispatches the Yoma. Raki’s village banishes him and he joins her until he can find a place he can live again. Together, they have adventures as Clare fulfils her duty.

The claymores all have to be put down eventually, as the demon inside them slowly takes over their mind. So new claymores are always coming in as the last batch burns out. Clare is believably both inhuman and human. She has nothing to look forward to. Yet she cares about Raki. Her past is not so different from his. Unfortunately, while Raki has hope, she knows where she will end up. Someone must fight the Yoma to the bitter end.

The guy in the story is another sidekick, and I like that. It can be an adventure even if you’re a secondary dude with no powers. He’s learning things and seeing sights no one else would. One gets the sense that Clare’s attachment to Raki (cold and pragmatic as it is) is allowing her to resist the demon inside her longer. I like how for once the doomed defender is a woman, and she is following a calling of her own volition. She’s effective as a heroine. The action is all about her. The strongest male fighters lose ground against the Yoma. Clare gets the job done using a combination of unexpected tactics and quick thinking.

Verdict: Thumbs up, all the way.

Overall, not bad at all for a first-time dive into the material. It makes me excited about comics again, in a way I haven’t been for ten years.